Petro Poroshenko has been declared the official winner in Ukraine's presidential elections, receiving around 54 percent of the vote. Despite Russia's cautious welcoming of Poroshenko's victory, the new Ukrainian leader faces some immediate challenges to his rule.
First and foremost will be dealing with pro-Russian separatism in Ukraine's eastern regions. As expected, voting could not be held in many parts of the Donetsk and Luhansk provinces, particularly in the separatist strongholds. Then, just a day after the election, separatists took over the regional airport in Donetsk, where Ukrainian security forces confronted them. Heavy fighting continued into May 27.
The operation to dismantle the separatist takeover in Donetsk is one of the largest since Ukrainian security forces launched what the government calls anti-terrorism operations at the beginning of April. Ukrainian forces appeared to use artillery fire as well as helicopter gunships and fixed-wing strikes to take back the airport. Separatists armed with small arms, rocket-propelled grenades, automatic grenade launchers, mortars and heavy machine guns challenged the Ukrainian forces, while Ukrainian infantry appeared to have moved toward the targets in armored personnel carriers. Reports of casualties are conflicting, but at least 30 separatists appear to have been killed in the operation, with casualties on the Ukrainian side unknown thus far. However, whether the action took place as described and whether it was under Ukrainian command also cannot be verified at this time.
The biggest question moving forward is how Russia will react to these military operations. Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov reiterated May 27 that Moscow is "open to dialogue" with the new leadership but that Ukraine's security operations against pro-Russian separatists must stop. Russia has substantial influence among the heavily armed components of the separatist groups in the Donetsk and Luhansk provinces, though whether it specifically backed the groups that attempted the Donetsk airport takeover remains unclear.
The change in leadership in Ukraine presents an opportunity for relations to improve between Kiev and Moscow, as progress in negotiations over energy issues has shown. However, Poroshenko's commitment — at least for now — to continue with security operations until all major separatist elements are cleared, and to continue down Ukraine's path toward European integration, will be a substantial obstacle to any significant warming of relations with Russia. Ultimately, balancing Ukraine's internal divisions, as well as its relationship with both Russia and the West, will be just as difficult a prospect for Poroshenko as it has been for previous Ukrainian leaders.